The Tangled Roots of Jazz and Islam: Me’shell Ndegeocello

Me'shell Ndegeocello

Me’shell Ndegeocello

Me’shell Ndegeocello says she comes up with interesting ideas and ten tries to get record companies to fund them! That is what I call the ideal life.  Her music, whether she sings, plays the bas, or composes and produces, is exciting, energetic and eclectic.  Jazzy with a bluesy feel when its not a fusion between soul/R&B and hard bop.

Spectacular evidence of her success at getting record companies to fund her interesting ideas can be seen on the record we shine the light on today, The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel. There is no picture or drawing of her or any other band members or anything musical. In keeping with the teachings of Islam and its prohibition against the portrayal of the human form, the album’s cover is emblazoned with Arabic calligraphy: bismi’llah al Rahman al Rahim (In the Name of God the Merciful and Beneficient).

Four years after September 11, 2001, with America up to its bloodshot eyes in twin wars against ‘Islamicist global terror’, at a time when the M word was the new N word, an American record company puts out an album with Islam’s most basic incantation on the cover!  This woman clearly is persuasive!

Of course, the music on the record is what persuaded Shanachie Records to release it.  It, like everything Me’shell has done, is classy, integrated and pleasurable.  Here are several reviews of the record which will give you the low down on who does what etc.

What none of the reviewers even try to understand, though, is what the significance of the record is. What does it mean, or imply or say? Why release a record that is so potentially provocative? So overtly spiritual? All the reviews rave on about the brilliant playing on Al-Falaq 113 and Luqman but unless you’re a scholar of comparative religions you’d have no idea where the titles come from.

I’m no scholar of jazz or religion. And I certainly do not have any inside dope on what the ‘meaning’ of the music is.  But it certainly is intriguing to reflect upon.

Me’shell converted to Islam as an adult but appears to have a fairly modern and sceptical attitude to Faith. She has termed herself an ‘Islamic atheist’ but one who believes in angels and finds solace in the practice of praying 5 times each day.  Fundamentalists would no doubt consider her a kafir (unbeliever) especially when her bisexuality is added into the equation, but from everything I’ve been able to find on her views of Islam, faith and religion (not much) she takes it very seriously.  Just not in the strict traditional way.

This album, released in 2005, came to life, to some degree, through her reflections on her faith in the wake of 9-11.

Well, I think part of being involved with Islam prior to 9-11 and having it be a big part of my life, then watching everything fall apart and seeing people do things that I was really ashamed of, and also doing things myself that I was ashamed of-it just really made me look deeper into my faith and myself. And what I used to tell people about the Dance of the Infidel record is that its improvisational music, because I don’t like the word ‘jazz’. There’s no regimen. Like if you read a verse your interpretation and feeling of it is going to be completely different than mine. Like if you play the melody and I play the melody, even though it’s the same melody, it’s going to feel different. And pretty much, that’s what I learned about religion and life, and politics. Everything is filtered through people’s experience, their beliefs, hurts and joys. And it comes out in different ways, but we’re not all meeting at the same place all the time. That’s why great writers are so important and rare. So that everyone can get the same thing from something. But I think that’s difficult to achieve as well, but it just really made me see world for what it was. And a lot of that music is just to express that and to also put a certain energy out in the world. Having an “alternative lifestyle” it made me ask myself why am I embracing a religion that won’t even accept me? And so, it was my gift to the creator, if there is one, because I’m also humble enough to know, like– I don’t know. No one does. So how about I just live a good life and do the best again, because without the devil and without God you only have yourself to blame.”

But+Gone+70th+Birthday+Tribute+Curtis+Mayfield+Zs96pFVjwBzlIt appears her response to the horror of the Twin Towers was to conceive of a suite of music where community and collaboration were the vital themes. To bring diverse experiences and personalities and styles together but within the frame of an Islamic worldview.

Several of the tracks are named for Quranic suras (chapter) including the opening short track, Mu-min. This sura speaks about the persecution of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in the early years of Islam and the many conspiracies to discredit his message and even kill him. The Believer (mu-min) is encouraged to stand firm and place faith in God’s ultimate superior power. Even when evil seems overwhelming.  Interestingly, it seems Ndegeocello has interpreted this chapter in a way that sees the 9-11 attackers as being the evil-doers, who are trying to murder Islam’s true message and messenger. Probably the very anti-thesis of what those who participated in the attacks believed.  Naming the opening track after this chapter suggests she is giving expression to her faith that God (Allah) will prevail against the ‘terrorists’.

Al-Falaq 113, a long jazzy track, in many way the heart of the album refers to a very short 5 versed sura which invokes the protection of the Almighty upon the Believer. A beautiful piece of literature, Al Falaq states

Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak
From the evil of that which He created
From the evil of the darkness when it is intense
And from the evil of the blower of knots
And from the evil of the envier when he envies

The darkness when it is intense, is about the best description of 9-ll I’ve heard.

Finally, Luqman is a sura that relates to the Universality and Eternity of Islam. That even though Islam came to the Arabs for the first time through the Prophet (PBUH), the message of Islam (submission to the Almighty Creator of All things) is in fact, eternal and pre-existent.  And others, such as the sage Luqman, who was not identified as a Muslim, spoke the same very same—Islamic—message in his Age.   Is Me’shell employing this sura as justification for her own unorthodox lifestyle (as perceived by traditionalists) and her proclamation that her personal interpretation of the message of Islam is as valid as any other, as it belongs to the ‘eternal and universal’ Being of God?

Who knows? This is all speculation at a distance. But it does seem to make sense. Islam is an iconoclastic religion, especially during the life and era right after the death of Mohammad.  Her personal interpretation of that faith, in turn, cracks open the icons of received traditional Islam, especially as co-opted by the radicals of 9-ll.   Is the attack on the Twin Towers, the real ‘Dance of the Infidel?’

This record then appears to be her very heart-felt cry and response to the ‘shameful’ act of September 2001.  Anguished, yet hopeful and unbowed.  Just like the incantation on the cover, In the Name of Allah the Most Merciful.

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Track Listing:

01. Mu-Min

02. Al Falaq 113

03. Aquarium

04. Papillon

05. Dance of the Infidel

06.  The Chosen

07. Luqman

08. When Did You Leave Heaven?

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6 thoughts on “The Tangled Roots of Jazz and Islam: Me’shell Ndegeocello

  1. e2thec

    “Ten tries”: I think you might be underestimating how hard ti can be to pitch ideas and get interest, especially when the music is so eclectic, personal and, honestly, non-commercial.

    but no matter. I love this recording – thanks so much for posting!

    Reply
    1. e2thec

      Thanks, and no worries!

      Meshell had a hard time finding a label that was willing to issue this recording. The company that did pick it up (Shanachie) made a *lot* of fuss about that in press releases, though, to their credit, they generated quite a lot of interest in this disc.

      Reply
  2. Phillip

    Well I must be a bit of a heretic, or pedant, because I remain conflicted over Ms Ndegéocello. You probably know in the early 90’s the Red, Hot & Cool CD of jazz musicians against HIV-AIDS was released. Me’shell composed and recorded a stunning version of Nocturnal Sunshine with Herbie Hancock on keys and Wah Wah Watson on gtr. On this basis I bought Peace Beyond Passion and Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape and both struck me as too-cool-by-half and over-intellectualising. Having not listened to her for a decade or so I approached Jamia curiously and was reasonably pleasantly surprised – maybe it was that the style (jazz) is more to my taste, perhaps it is the quality musicians, and maybe my taste has evolved. Made me go back and listen to the earlier recordings. There is no doubting her abilities, but I still end up wondering if I should keep the headphones on the capture the subtleties, or if it is really just sophisticated background music.

    Reply
  3. Nate Rabe

    Philip, I confess to not knowing her other stuff and will definitely be checking it out, but this and the ‘Peace Beyond Passion’ album are very high class in my book. Keep your heretical comments flowing, they never go awry.

    Reply

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